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Kim Edwards' novel The Memory Keeper's Daughter is already a runaway success. It has received hundreds of reader comments on Amazon.com and has been read by reading groups all over the country. The novel spans from 1964 to 1989, and stars with the birth of twins in Lexington, Kentucky. David Henry delivers his own children, because the other doctors cannot get to the hospital due to a snow storm. His wife Norah hardly understands what is going on, and as soon as he sees the second baby, Phoebe, he gives her to the only nurse there, Caroline Gill, and tells her to take the baby away. What leads him to do this? He can see immediately that Phoebe has Down syndrome, and he grew up with a disabled sister himself. He does not want to put his family through that, so asks Caroline to take the baby to a home for disabled children immediately, and he tells Norah that the girl died.
Once he has told this lie, he cannot take it back. Caroline does not carry out his instructions, but instead takes the Phoebe, moves to a different city, and raises her on her own. No one else knows the truth. David and Norah hold a memorial service for Phoebe, and Norah is profoundly affected by her perception of David's reaction to their child's death, since he avoids the topic and hates to acknowledge it. This creates a divide between them, and their relationship suffers. They are never as close after the birth of the twins as they were before. What's more, as their son Paul grows up, he also feels very distant from his father. David is successful as a doctor and later in his life he becomes a photographer, and he excels in this too, to the extent that eventually he has exhibitions all over the country. His son Paul is a brilliant guitarist, and Norah has her own profitable job as a travel agent. Yet David remains deeply unhappy.
The novel is reminiscent of Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone in its treatment of the social place of gender and family over several turbulent decades. Thankfully, however, unlike Lamb, Edwards treats this theme with some subtlety. She has a similarly light touch with the disability of Down syndrome. Caroline fights for her adopted daughter's rights in the school system, and Phoebe grows up to be a happy and loveable woman. Edwards makes clear that the view, almost universal in the 1960s, that a living with Down syndrome is worse than death, is profoundly mistaken. It is clear that David's decision to send Phoebe away robbed Norah, Paul and himself of profound joy. Yet, at the same time, it is also clear that the task of parenting Phoebe is a very challenging experience for Caroline. By giving David his own family experience of a sister who died young, Edwards makes his decision to lie to his wife and the community more understandable. Yet there's no doubt that it is a terrible mistake.
The episodic nature of the novel, in which we return to the main characters periodically, (1965, 1970, 1977, 1982, 1988, 1989) give it a feel of a series of interconnected short stories. The characters are interesting, but they are not very sympathetic. The central tension in the novel is whether David's secret will ever be revealed, and whether there will be a reunion of Phoebe with her mother and brother, and if so, how that will affect Phoebe's relationship with Caroline. This is what keeps the reader interested. Each reader will decide for him or herself whether the ending of the novel is a satisfying conclusion of the story; with the structure Edwards provides, it is hard to see how there could have been an reconciliation between David, Norah, Caroline, Paul and Phoebe. There is a reconciliation between some of these characters, but I found Edwards' way of achieving this a little moralistic.
In terms of its literary sophistication, I would place The Memory Keeper's Daughter a little above the authors who provide blurbs on the book cover, Sue Monk Kidd and Jodi Picoult. Edwards avoids clichés and while she addresses an important social topic, she does not lapse into sensationalism. Occasionally the plot turns on accidental events that are a little too convenient for the author's purposes, but for the most part the writing is intelligent and gripping. Yet some of the interest of the book lies not in itself, but in the fact that it has been so popular; not many popular novels have addressed disorders such as Down syndrome, and so the novel becomes important as a cultural phenomenon. At least on a superficial level, the book seems to be a positive force, since it emphasizes the humanity of Phoebe and shows how fulfilling her life can be when she is given the appropriate support. At the same time, the novel tells the story of a family torn apart by having a child with a disability, so it shows the negative effects of prejudice against people with disability on the whole of society, not just those with the disability. So the book could be useful in a class on disability studies.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.